Thursday, March 20, 2008

What's with Postmodernism?

When I write, I usually pick topics that I understand. Well, there's one topic in skepticism that I feel I don't quite get. What's up with skepticism's relationship with postmodernism? If you pay attention to the conversation that's going on (and I've heard this both offline and online), you find that most skeptics think postmodernism is one of their enemies. Why?

First, a few links to demonstrate what I'm talking about (and yes, I do bookmark these for months at a time).
  • The Sokal affair - Alan Sokal famously published a nonsense article ("Transgressing Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity") in a postmodern journal without the editors catching it. This experiment suggests that postmodernism is indistinguishable from nonsense.
  • Rob Knop runs into a postmodernist who promptly dismisses Big Bang theory as being a cultural projection.
  • A postmodernist critique of evolution - The association between postmodernism and Creationism speaks very badly of postmodernism.
  • A retrospective look at postmodernism - Rob Helpychalk gives us a more historical perspective on postmodernism. He gives a pretty good answer to my question "What's with Postmodernism?" but I guess I'm still confused.
What is postmodernism? It's so hard to define, especially by me, since I'm young and have absolutely no historical perspective, and do not study humanities. Everything I say on this topic is without the slightest bit of authority. But basically, postmodernism is a set of ideas that has cut across all fields of study, and has greatly affected our culture. Sometimes, it's defined as the rejection of all meta-narratives (meaning that they do not accept that there is any "correct" overarching worldview). Every view is ultimately affected by the cultural context, and in the more extreme forms of postmodernism, every view is purely a construction of its cultural context. In the even more extreme forms, scientific facts are no exception. You can make reality into whatever you want it to be.

When skeptics think of postmodernism, they mostly seem to think about the more extreme forms that reject science. Well, we're used to focusing on the bad parts of everything, because that's where criticism helps most. But to condemn all of postmodernism based only on the extreme forms is to construct a strawman. I mean, the idea that there is no reality separate from our worldview is silly, but the less extreme forms aren't all bad. It's true that there is some degree of bias from our culture, and we have to keep the uncertainty of our own beliefs in mind.

From virtually every other source, I get a very different view of postmodernism. We live in the Postmodern era, which started maybe around WWII. So really, we're all postmodernists. Here's my extremely apocryphal impression of modernism and postmodernism:

Modernism: "Look back at all of history. Those guys don't know what they're talking about! We can do much better than that! Instead of looking at the past, we should be looking to the future. In the future, there will be no war, and we'll have flying cars!"

Postmodernism: "Look back at all of history. Those guys don't know what they're talking about! And based on the historical results, we find that modernism didn't know what it was talking about either. We're no different. Everything we've ever known has been molded by our culture. How can we know what is true anymore? How can anyone know?"

If postmodernism is a cultural era, then it follows that even the skeptical movement itself is a postmodern movement. After all, the skeptical movement is usually traced back to, what, the 70s? I could draw similarities--skepticism rejects all sorts of meta-narratives, and is forever mindful of uncertainties. But one of those meta-narratives they reject is postmodernism, so maybe skepticism is really a modernist backlash against postmodernism? Or maybe it's something else entirely?

So I'm confused. It's up to you, the internet, to set me straight!


Anonymous said...

I would probably describe myself as post-modernist. Everything depends on your viewpoint etc. On the other hand, I think that the scientific method is the best/only way of figuring out how things are.

My post-modernism relates more to things like the questions we think are important and the analogies we draw are culture specific.

But since every definition of post-modernism is ridiculously vague I could be completely mistaken.

Anonymous said...

This is why skeptics dismiss post-modernists:

Summary: Post-modernists take any random source text and find clever ways to match whatever theme they want it to. Since post-modernism is just sophistry, they can't be awarded based on correctness (since by definition of sophistry, they will always twist words to match their theme) so they are awarded based on cleverness, style, obscurity, and incomprehensibility of language. It's the same way that pyramidologists, numerologists, and astrologers work except that post-modernists somehow found a way to be employed by universities and are able to crank out more of them with degrees.

miller said...

Thanks for the link. I am not sure if we can generalize so easily to all of postmodernism, but I rather like the characterization of postmodernism as "epistemologically challenged".

Larry Hamelin said...

My posts on postmodernism

Very briefly...

Modernism is that there is EXACTLY ONE AND ONLY ONE ABSOLUTE TRUTH IN ALL CAPS ABOUT EVERYTHING -- especially that we have the right or even the duty to colonize and exploit the rest of the world because our society is the ONE AND ONLY ONE ABSOLUTELY RIGHT WAY OF LIVING.

"Good" postmodernism is the idea that there are different kinds of truth, different ways of looking at truth, and for some things, such as ethics, no truth at all.

"Bullshit" postmodernism is pure metaphysical/epistemic nihilism, there is no truth at all of any kind about anything. (Except the true statement that we know that there is no truth about anything.)

Unfortunately, philosophy and the humanities is not so rigorous or speedy about ridding itself of egregiously obvious bullshit.

miller said...

Finally, a viewpoint that acknowledges that some postmodernism is good and some is bad.

Sometimes I worry that skeptics are getting the wrong idea from the Sokal affair, and are antagonizing everything that could possibly be called postmodernism.

Anonymous said...

Post Modernism usually requires drugs like LSD and mushrooms, or even just regular usage of marijuana. For those of us who are naturally skeptical about the world and regularly extract ourselves from our day to day routines, we can understand post modernism without the drugs. I am not one of these people and I used to smoke a lot of marijuana. Also, it's important to note that while many people read and understand many post-modern ideas, most, like myself, are incapable of putting such ideas to words successfully and end up sounding like Modern-day Cassandras. It's simple, read it and if you understand it then you understand it and if you don't then you don't. Ignore the critics and formulate your own opinion. Nice article.

Andrew Clunn said...

One inescapable tenant of Postmodernism is the belief in moral relativism. The idea that morality is simply a mater of opinion or perspective (often this is applied to ethics as well.) For those of us who are not moral relativists, this is an egregious world view. I notice you linked to this post from your post on Objectivism. I find that interesting, as the politically left secular movement tends to at least sympathize with post-modernism, while the politically right secular movement tends to sympathize with Objectivist philosophy.

miller said...

One inescapable tenant of Postmodernism is the belief in moral relativism.But postmodernism is not nearly as unified a philosophy as you might think. How do I know that this is in fact representative of postmodernists and not a straw man?

I, too, believe that there does not exist an objective basis for morality which is disconnected from humans. But I do not believe in moral relativism. Are you sure you're not oversimplifying things?

Andrew Clunn said...

No, I completely understand what you're getting at. However, you are then not a postmodernist (Though you may share many views with them.) Well, actually let me clarify. If you believe that morality changes for the individual situation (ie you are not a deontologist, for which all actions have pre-existing moral values) this does not make you a postmodernist.

The belief that there are valid moral values, but that they cannot be accessed without first understanding the whole of the situation is entirely a modernist view. Being an Objectivist myself, I hold morality as being a reverence for 1) the truth and 2) a guide for one's own survival. So I fall firmly into the modernist camp.

The thing about postmodernism is that it's sort of the poor man's nihilism. It avoids the view that things are ultimately pointless by saying that they are at least amusing.

miller said...

Fair enough.

Philip Astley said...

Finally someone has spoken up! I am puzzled too. When I call myself a sceptic I am aligning myself with the obvious rational critical thinkers like Michael Shermer, Richard Dawkins, Ben Dunning etc., etc. This is all great when we are discussing pseudoscience and creationism, however, my main areas of interest generally involves history. I found that historians who usually support my view of studying history, which is fairly mainstream empirical evidence driven, bristle at the mention of the word "sceptic". No matter how hard I argued they saw sceptics as postmodernists and deconstructionists. Scepticism, in their view, was fundamentally linked to postmodernism and deconstructionim through "critical theory". I had no real prior knowledge of either school of thought. Likewise not long ago I came across some of the philosopical arguments for common sense that apparently argued against philosophical scepticism, "Here is a Hand" for example. The arguments against scepticism, I felt, were pretty much in line with the way a modern sceptic thought. What was termed scepticism at the time appears to be close to what Marcello Truzzi called pseudoscepticism. Pseudoscepticism seems to be a very close relation to pseudohistory and the common enemy of both serious scientists and serious historians: the conspiracy theorist.

Michael Shermer and Damian Thompson have both taken on the conspiracy theorists and the pseudohistorians with vigour. They recognise the same irrational, illogical and confirmation bias approach taken by these people is virtually identical to those who support pseudoscience, cryptozoology, ufology, creationism etc. Of course, creationism is a form of pseudohistory. In his book "Counterknowledge" Thompson observes the threat of postmodernist history. Seeing this I was interested to read more about postmodernism, a subject the historian Richard J Evans attacks in his "In Defence of History". Then I saw it again: the postmodernists are interchangeably called sceptics.

So, although I appreciate the main article is asking for an appreciation with some more moderate forms of postmodernism - as modern sceptics I don't think we should be too hasty to dismiss anything automatically - I am interested in finding some deeper separation between irrational and rational scepticism. Just some thoughts.

miller said...

I find it strange that the historians you know should associate skepticism with postmodernism and deconstructionism. This suggests that they are not familiar with modern scientific skepticism, and are mistaking it for something else. If anything, skeptics tend to antagonize postmodernism.

You can be assured though that even if skeptics did start sympathizing more with postmodernism, they would always stand firmly against conspiracy theories. Holocaust denial, 9/11 conspiracies, moon hoaxers, you name it.

Philip Astley said...

Well, that's the way I figured it, but they were having none of it. Critical theory and critical thinking sound too similar I guess. After all, a lot of con-theos and pseudohistorians think of themselves as sceptics and modern sceptics as the believers! Although modern sceptics can take a nod from Socrates, what consider to be modern scepticism has little in common with what "Here is a Hand" was arguing against. Postmodernism in historical terms just seems to be the perfect door opener to for pseudohistory, hyperdiffusionism and conspiracy theories.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of a John Stuart Mill quote: 'Strange it is, that men should admit the validity of the arguments for free discussion, but object to their being "pushed to an extreme;" not seeing that unless the reasons are good for an extreme case, they are not good for any case.'

Words mean things and have logical implications. If you reject some logical consequences of a set of premises, then you don't accept the premises. Postmodernism is a body of tenets. You don't get to pick some and reject others and still call yourself a postmodernist—moderate or other. You certainly have a theory, but it's not postmodernism.

I understand you're trying to show humility, but it's erring into special pleading: disregarding the 'absurd' logical elements as 'extreme', but recognizing others as representative of postmodernism. Eminent postmodernists seriously do argue them. It's well documented.

Postmodernist discourse consists of affirming its tenets before others while never challenging those tenets and calling it skepticism. I've never seen it done with logical validity. While it has some good ideas, so does any bad theory.

miller said...

If you are trying to argue that I am not a postmodernist, then I am happy to concede that point right off the bat.

Anonymous said...

If you are trying to argue that I am not a postmodernist

No, the 'you' in my post is the impersonal variant meaning 'a person' in general. I'm responding to the paragraph:

When skeptics think of postmodernism, ... extreme forms ... focusing on the bad parts of everything ... a strawman ... the less extreme forms aren't all bad ...

Well-established postmodernism authorities argue that position, so it's hard to consider it 'extreme' or exceptional. Postmodernism, fully articulated, includes it. Critics almost certainly refer to this as postmodernism. Whether a 'less extreme' form is truly postmodernism is contestable—no one needs postmodernism to accept the notion social values are arbitrary. I don't think it's a strawman.